Before Friday, North Carolina had hosted eight NCAA baseball tournament regionals and never lost its first game in any of them, dating to the first time it hosted one back in 1983. Before Friday, Davidson had never won an NCAA tournament game in its 115-year existence.
Then those streaks intersected on Friday at Boshamer Stadium, and both of them ended. Davidson, making its first NCAA tournament appearance, scored the game’s first eight runs, and its 8-4 victory left the Tar Heels, and their partisan crowd, stunned.
It left the Wildcats, meanwhile, with perhaps their most significant baseball victory in school history. No “perhaps” about it, said Dick Cooke, who in his 27th season at Davidson coached the Wildcats to their first NCAA tournament victory.
“That’s the biggest win in the history of the program, right there,” said Cooke, who survived a ghastly automobile collision in 2012 to reach this point.
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Mike Fox, the longtime UNC coach, referenced that accident, describing it as “horrific,” after his team’s defeat. Fox and Cooke have long been friends, and so even in defeat Fox admired the magnitude of the moment – especially for the head coach in the opposing dugout.
“I’d rather not be their first win in the NCAA tournament,” Fox said. “But, 115 years – that’s a long time.”
UNC (47-13), the top seed of this four-team regional, entered the NCAA tournament as the No. 2 overall national seed. Now, to advance to a Super Regional, the Tar Heels will need to win four consecutive games – one on Saturday against Michigan, two on Sunday and another on Monday, if UNC can stretch its season that far.
It is not an impossible task for a team with the sort of pitching, hitting and defense that UNC has proven to possess this season. Then again, all of those attributes went missing, and at precisely the wrong time, on Friday night.
The breakdown began, first, with pitching. J.B. Bukauskas, the junior right-hander, has been as dominant as just about anybody in the country, and for his efforts he recently earned ACC Pitcher of the Year honors. The accolades, and his season-long body of work, made Friday all the more surprising.
Bukauskas didn’t make it out of the fourth inning – it was only the second time this season that had happened – and he allowed a season-high six earned runs, most since his freshman season. He walked four batters, including the final three he faced, and he allowed six hits, tying the most he has surrendered this season.
“It seems like J.B. either had a really good slider, or he didn’t,” Fox said, summarzing Bukauskas’ inconsistency.
After he walked in a run with the bases loaded with two outs in the fourth inning, Bukauskas, who is likely to become a high first-round major league draft pick later this summer, had thrown the final of his 88 pitches. Rodney Hutchison, a lanky right-hander, relieved Bukauskas and the misery continued, at least temporarily.
Against the first batter he faced, Hutchison committed a balk with the bases loaded, allowing another run to score. That was Davidson’s sixth run, and if any moment defined the Tar Heels’ early-game frustration, it was likely that sequence, allowing the Wildcats to score two runs, moments apart, on a bases-loaded walk and then a balk.
The pitching woes were only a part of UNC’s defeat, though. The Tar Heels have attributed much of their success this season to their pristine, often flawless defense.
UNC has finished 29 games without an error. This wasn’t one of them, and though UNC’s lone error didn’t lead to an unearned run it nonetheless further characterized its uncharacteristic sloppiness.
By the time UNC positioned itself to rally, it trailed 8-0 in the bottom of the sixth. The Tar Heels, largely flummoxed by Davidson starter Durin O’Linger, scored their first run, with two outs. They scored three more times – two of them on Logan Warmoth’s home run to left field – the next inning.
Moments after Warmoth’s home run, Brandon Riley followed with one of his own, a booming shot to right that nearly hit a flagpole half the way up. Suddenly, Davidson’s once-commanding eight-run lead had been cut in half.
There was life, and hope, once again inside of Boshamer Stadium. But UNC left the eighth inning without threatening to score, and in the ninth Davidson right-hander Allen Barry, who pitched the final three innings, retired the Tar Heels in order, striking out Kyle Datres, looking, to end the game.
O’Linger and Barry combined to allow 10 hits, but many of those came with two outs, forcing the Tar Heels to string together hit after hit in order to score. It didn’t often happen that way and O’Linger, for his part, cracked a joke afterward about how he’d have been willing to pitch until his arm gave out. He threw 94 pitches.
In many ways, this was a match-up of contrasts: Mighty UNC, the national seed with all the history and resources, against Davidson, which had never before won an NCAA tournament game. There was Bukauskas, the prized major league prospect, against O’Linger, who is not a top prospect but does sport a wily, wooly beard.
And there was UNC’s star-studded lineup, with two All-Americans, against the Wildcats far-less proclaimed lineup, which broke through with three runs in the second inning, and two more in both the fourth and fifth. Played on paper, this game never would have played out this way. But on the field ...
“They hit us in the mouth early and we just couldn’t recover,” said Brian Miller, the Tar Heels’ leadoff man and center fielder.
Datres, the Tar Heels’ sophomore third baseman and clean-up hitter, disagreed with the strikeout call that ended the game, and he protested it all the way back to the dugout, to no avail. The game was over. Davidson’s reserves rushed from the dugout and onto the field, and so began an enthusiastic celebration.
UNC, meanwhile, retreated to its clubhouse, its season suddenly and shockingly in peril sooner than anyone would have anticipated. Afterward Fox said the message to his team was simple enough: focus on winning one game, and not four. The Tar Heels must win four to advance, but they can’t do that unless they first win on Saturday in an elimination game.
Never before Friday had Davidson won an NCAA tournament game. Never before Friday had UNC lost in the first game of a regional that it has hosted. Now the Tar Heels find themselves in the most precarious of positions. Another defeat this weekend would end their season.
“Our season’s on the line,” Fox said. “... You can’t hide it.”